I want to catch up on my Booker blogging this long weekend, so here goes: I loved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. If I were a Booker judge, I’d have a hard time choosing between this and Autumn, both books that deal with the divisions in contemporary Britain, but with very different styles and strengths.
Home Fire is a reworking of the Antigone story, and Natalie Haynes’ review discusses its relationship to both Sophocles and Anouilh’s versions. I think I’ll be reading some Antigone when I’m done with the Booker list. (I swear I read Sophocles in grad school but can’t find a copy in the house). That link is all I knew about the book going in, so I was prepared for tragedy (yes) and a confrontation between the state and the individual/family/religion (yes). But Home Fire is very much its own thing and never felt like a direct retelling. I had a general sense of where it was going, but it was still full of surprises.
Isma, studying in America, and Aneeka, the younger sister she helped raise, worry about Aneeka’s twin Parvaiz, who has followed in the footsteps of the jihadi father the twins never knew. Both sisters are drawn to Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary, a man of Pakistani Muslim origins who has taken a hard line on British citizens who leave the country to fight in places like Syria.
Home Fire is maybe the most conventional of the Booker novels I’ve read so far, with fairly lean prose and a straightforward narrative (no jumping around in time, dreamy sequences, or fantastical elements). Shamsie slowly and skillfully ratchets up the tension of her plot. The narrative is third person, but each section is told from the point of view of a different character; I was a long way in before I noticed how the style subtly shifts to reflect that person’s character. Once I did notice, I thought a lot about how each person’s character–not character flaws, necessarily, but just the kind of person they were–inevitably contributed to the looming tragedy. It’s one of the ways the story’s origins in Classical drama showed up.
Politics are a big part of this story, of course, but so are young love, family bonds, secrets and betrayal. As Rosario says, it’s a novel with a message, but the characters always feel fully human, not like cardboard figures in service of the message. I cared about and sympathized with all of them. Because of the connections it draws between the personal and political, because most of its characters are young (and because it’s short and dramatic), I think it would work very well in a first-year literature class. I used to teach one that paired classic works with re-telling, and Home Fire with either version of Antigone would work well. Hmm….
Once I finished and put the book down, I had some quibbles. Sometimes coincidence propels the plot, and sometimes it seemed perhaps too sentimental or melodramatic. Shamsie has to pull some punches to make Parvaiz’s actions sympathetic. But none of that bothered me while I was reading, and ultimately I thought those qualities were deliberate, derived from the mythical source material and from the youthful, rather romantic or idealistic perspectives of Eamonn, Aneeka, and Parvaiz.
One thing in particular I’m still pondering, and if you’ve read this I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: both Eamonn and Parvaiz seem naive and sheltered, protected by the women, in particular, of their families (though also by Karamat). Their sisters are tougher, better at making their way in the world.
I haven’t read Shamsie before, but I’ll certainly remedy that now.